I will let you in on a little secret to success. Something that is present with all great leaders, athletes, CEOs, artisans and inventors. Something we all notice but rarely talk about. They've all had great coaches, mentors and guides. Success is rarely done in isolation and rarely on the first attempt.
This simple but powerful secret to success can change your life in an instant. A subtle change in direction gives you the needed perspective to do great things while staying connected to the world around you. It's no wonder why we see great human feats of the impossible nature accomplished in sports. It's the one place in society where the value of coaching is recognized, celebrated and rewarded.
What makes a great coach? That's a good question. The etymology of the word coach comes from Oxford University slang for a private tutor dating back to 1830. Students would use a pony (cheating aid - small notes) and a coach to help carry them through examinations. At the time, the word coach was used to describe a large carriage on four wheels. The word was transferred to sports in 1861 as someone employed to train athletes for contests.
Today, coaches are not just for academics or sports, but every aspect of our life. In any profession, for any skill, there is someone out there that is teaching, coaching, and mentoring someone to do the job better. And that's a beautiful thing.
Kevin Trethowan, the owner of The Niagara Herbalist, is a player-coach in every sense of the word. He's not just leading; he's playing the game too. And I think that's what makes a great coach. Someone that has played the game before and can guide you through failures to success quickly. Kevin was a former athlete turned professional sports coach who applied his player-coach approach when he transitioned into the cannabis industry.
Staring at the bottom in his first cannabis job, Kevin slowly moved his way up to increased responsibility and autonomy. He went from building greenhouses to designing them by applying his player-coach mentality to learning the business and fast-tracking his career.
When Ontario's AGCO announced the first twenty-five cannabis retail lottery winners in 2019, Kevin Trethowan was one of the lucky twenty-five winners. And again, as many times before, Kevin was going to play the game first, before becoming the coach and leader we need in cannabis retail.
We’re open and honest with our team and this builds a foundation of trust. We strongly believe that if your staff is happy, your customers will benefit.
Kevin is a pioneer and role model for cannabis retail owners that believe in paying a fair living wage, community development, and sustainable environmental practices. If every cannabis dispensary adopted these three principles, it would make the industry better for employees and customers.
We had a fantastic opportunity recently to interview Kevin and learn about his journey into the cannabis industry and opening the first cannabis retail store in Ontario. Coach Kevin and The Niagara Herbalist lead the way in cannabis retail in Ontario by being an example of what it means to be first, and how doing the right thing makes good business.
What is your background, and how did you come into the cannabis industry?
Prior to The Niagara Herbalist, I worked for a company in Vineland Station that specialized in building turnkey cannabis greenhouses and indoor facilitates. This was my first venture into the cannabis industry, and I am extremely grateful for that opportunity as it was my first step towards The Niagara Herbalist. Prior to the cannabis industry, I came from a sports coaching and management background. Most recently, I was the head coach of the women's soccer program at Brock University in St. Catharines.
What motivated you to start your current business?
Knowing that we would be the first legal cannabis store in Ontario gave us all the motivation we needed. The opportunity to be a pioneer and help shape the recreational cannabis retail landscape in Ontario was truly unique, and this keeps us motivated to this day. Before the rules changed to a private retail model, we had plans in place to open a dispensary, and then we got the email from the AGCO on January 11th, 2019 saying we were one of the first 25 applicants selected to apply for a retail operator license. We had 11 weeks and 3 days to build a business from scratch in order to meet the April 1st, 2019 deadline and not incur fines of up to $50,000.
Describe a previous failure that was instrumental in developing you as a person, business owner, and entrepreneur?
I played high-level soccer in England and went on to coach at various clubs and universities. Throughout my career, I suffered many failures. But with each failure came an opportunity to learn. I left the world of soccer to move into cannabis, where I started from the ground up. After moving from Toronto to St. Catharines, coaching soccer was no longer a feasible option as I had a family to feed. I started as a laborer at GGS Structures and worked my way up to the office where I designed and configured turnkey cannabis greenhouses and indoor facilities.
In this drastic career transition, I learned that anything is possible if you’re ready to work for it,
What have you and your company done to develop your culture?
Our work culture is empowerment. We've built an inclusive environment where staff have a voice, they feel valued, and we give them the tools to thrive. We're open and honest with our team and this builds a foundation of trust. We strongly believe that if your staff is happy, your customers will benefit.
Our staff have created an atmosphere of trust and honesty with our customers. If a customer trusts you, they will be loyal to you. It's like having a reliable plumber, why would you go elsewhere?
What social values do you support, and how do you actively instill them at work?
We believe that every working member of our community should be entitled to livable working opportunities. We do our part by being members of the Ontario Living Wage Network and provide full benefits to our staff.
We also believe in supporting local businesses and collaborating on different initiatives to build each other up.
We were extremely fortunate to have been given the opportunity to open a cannabis retail store, and in turn, we give back to our community at every opportunity. During the height of the pandemic, we purchased and built a greenhouse for Start Me Up Niagara, a not-for-profit organization that grow affordable produce for people who need it in the area. This greenhouse allowed them to extend their growing season as well as provide further employment opportunities.
Why do you think your employees like working at The Niagara Herbalist?
Inclusion. We are honest employers and in regular communication with our team, with most of the staff being part of The Herbalist from the beginning. We've built ourselves a nice little work family, and each employee cares deeply about the success of the business. They are directly involved in how the business operates and how it evolves. Our staff are loyal and understand that there will always be opportunities for growth with us.
How do you engage with your customers?
We're always looking to create interactions that are positive, memorable, and unique to each customer. We're grateful to have customers who've been with us since day 1, so we try to call them by name, remember their favourite strains, and other little details to let them know we care. Social media has also become another powerful tool for engaging with our customers. It provides us with up-to-date insight into how customers are feeling about us and gives us the ability to communicate things like sales, promotions, or low-stock items to our customers within minutes.
What effective sales, marketing, and social media strategies have you used to attract customers, develop your brand, and increase customer loyalty?
We've always taken a compassionate and conscious stance when it comes to our pricing model at The Herbalist. Our customers know that our prices are competitive and reflect our overall goal of accessible cannabis for all. We find opportunities to involve local organizations and businesses as we're trying to do more than just sell weed. We also provide a platform for local artists and artisans to share their work in-store and online.
How do you differentiate your product and services compared to your competitors?
Our goal has always been to make cannabis accessible to all. We have a broad selection of products, and our pricing model allows us to reach people from all walks of life. Some of our customers take the bus or can't make it to the store, so we offer free delivery in St. Catharines, Thorold & Niagara-on-the-Lake, as well as delivery throughout the entire Niagara region. We are one of the few stores that accept refunds which further strengthens the trust we have built with our customers.
On Monday, November 15th we launched the first-ever cannabis packaging buyback program where customers can bring in their used legal cannabis containers for 5¢/10¢. More information on this can be found on our website.
What advice would you give to someone looking to get into the cannabis industry?
If you're passionate about cannabis but you don't know where to start, get in wherever you can. Once you're in, absorb as much information as you can as there are many different types of opportunities within the industry. It might take you some time to find your niche, but it is there somewhere. Don't be afraid to move to new positions and try new things, just stay in the industry. It's just the beginning and we've only scratched the surface.
How can customers, potential employees and fans engage with your brand?
The best way to engage with us is to come and visit us in-store. There's always an owner on-site and a team of passionate and professional individuals to welcome you.
If you're unable to come by the store, you can visit us at:
For jobs, visit the cannabis-exclusive job search engine for the United States & Canada.